Death Toll Expected To Rise After Monster Twister In Okla.

Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., took a direct hit by a massive tornado Monday. Children from the school are among the dozens confirmed dead.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

In much of this country it is common for a tornado to wreck a home.

Sometimes it will devastate a whole neighborhood.

INSKEEP: In Moore, Oklahoma yesterday, the tornado was so massive and devastating, it even smashed a school - a school where children huddled for shelter inside.

GREENE: At this hour the president is speaking about the disaster in Washington, and we'll hear in a moment what he has to say. The state medical examiner's office in Oklahoma says the death toll stands at 24 - that was revised downward from an earlier count. And while that number is expected to rise again, it only begins to convey the scale of the damage. We begin our coverage with NPR's Wade Goodwyn. When he arrived in Moore, Oklahoma, the striking thing was how little in the tornado's path remained standing.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: At 3:01 Monday afternoon, the National Weather Service issued a very rare Tornado Emergency for the Oklahoma City area, a warning that widespread damage and fatalities were likely. A tornado had dropped out of the sky and was bearing down on a suburb south of town.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)

GOODWYN: The tornado started small and ropelike but in a matter of minutes grew more than a mile wide, then a mile and a half, astonishing the storm chasers following it. As sirens began to scream in the town of Moore, people had but a few minutes to find their safest spot, hunker down and wait.

William Brown, an Iraqi war vet, his wife and his next door neighbor and her daughter all ran to Brown's storm cellar.

WILLIAM BROWN: I saw the horizontal rain from the wraparound and knew it was about to get us. And then - and then all your common stuff start to happening - all the train sounds and the screeching of metal and mud started coming into the tornado shelter, so I knew the garage was gone. And I could smell gas so I knew that my car was probably gone.

GOODWYN: The Brown's house was destroyed, as was their neighborhood. But because they were on the edge of the tornado's path and because they had a storm shelter, their lives were saved.

BROWN: It took everything out but that's what insurance is for. And everybody is OK and that's what's important.

GOODWYN: Two hundred mile an hour winds plowed a deadly trough through town. If your house or school or business were in the monster's path, there was precious little you could do to save yourself but pray. Homes were swept up into a massive field of debris that circled aloft, hiding the actual funnel. As the twister rushed across a horse farm, dozens of animals were swept up into the horrifying spiral. The tornado then slammed into two elementary schools, their walls and roof giving way.

Molly Edwards and her husband had picked up their children from Plaza Towers Elementary just before the tornado hit the school. They drove away with the funnel in their rearview mirror.

MOLLY EDWARDS: We thought it might be safer for them to be there than to be here 'cause we didn't have a shelter. But we just didn't want to chance it, so we went and picked them up and just decided we would get in the car and head away from it. And that's what we did and that's probably what saved us. 'Cause if we would have all been in here, somebody would have ended up hurt.

GOODWYN: While the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders at Plaza Elementary had been evacuated to a nearby church, the kindergarteners through 3rd grade children hunkered down at the school. At least seven children drowned in the school basement. But one teacher saved three students by shielding them with her body from a car that landed on top of them. The teacher survives injured, the children miraculously almost unscathed.

Molly Edwards and her husband's decision to retrieve their three children from Plaza Elementary was pure instinct. The family stands on top of a pile of unrecognizable rubble that a few hours before was the family home. Molly is covered in pink insulation dust, which glistens like glitter on her skin.

EDWARDS: We don't have anything. This is everything we own. It's gone.

GOODWYN: As the light faded from the sky and evening turned dark, lightening flashed in the east, a spectacular display. Massive bolts streaked from one towering thunderhead to another, an unhappy reminder that it's only May and the tornado season is just begun.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News in Moore Oklahoma.

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